“The Legend of Korra” polarized the “Avatar” fandom when it failed to live up to the expectations of its predecessor, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” It splintered the fan base into warring clans, each viciously defending the series they liked better. “Avatar” loyalists outnumbered “Legend of Korra” apologists, but the number of those who remained neutral during this civil war, appreciating both shows, became a rising force. As the opposing sides clashed, a hidden figure lurked in the shadows, observing the conflict unfold. Though they weren’t entirely to blame for the show’s mishaps, they played a major role in its performance. This looming figure was none other than Nickelodeon, which, while home to both “The Legend of Korra” and “Avatar,” actively sabotaged the series’ budding potential.
Though tensions between “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Legend of Korra” fans eased, the sequel series remains a contentious subject within the fandom. When Avatar Studios announced an animated film based on Korra this year, it was surprising. It is certainly an ambitious choice to use the less popular show to spearhead the new wave of Avatar content; what was even more surprising, and somewhat ironic, was Nickelodeon’s full-fledged support for the new Korra film, despite the channel’s many attempts to inconspicuously smother the television series. Maybe the network finally recognized the potential of “The Legend of Korra” following its soaring popularity on Netflix in 2020. Bad writing, fan complaints and retcons aside, the show’s declining ratings can also be attributed to Nickelodeon’s handling of the series.
Nickelodeon’s tendency to disregard shows that aren’t like its highly rated crown jewel “Spongebob Squarepants” is nothing new. Past animated shows like “Danny Phantom” suffered from decreasing viewership and had a strange airing schedule, leading to further plummeting ratings. “My Life as a Teenage Robot” experienced episode delays, erratic timeslots and poor promotion as well. Even the critically acclaimed “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was mistreated by the children’s network. Banished to Nicktoons, like most other disfavored Nickelodeon programs, the show saw frequent shifts in its airing schedule, less marketing and few reruns. However, the treatment of “The Last Airbender” was mild compared to what happened to “The Legend of Korra.”
When creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko pitched the sequel series to Nickelodeon, the network was reluctant to greenlight its production because the show focused on a female lead character. Nickelodeon believed this would hurt the show’s viewership, allegedly stating “girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.” After some convincing from the creators and promising test screening results, Nickelodeon allowed production to resume but its lack of faith in the show’s potential persisted.
Treating “The Legend of Korra” as a stand-alone miniseries, most likely to gauge audience reception, the channel only ordered 12 episodes of the show. This placed huge constraints on Mike and Bryan since they didn’t know if the show would return for another season; consequently, they wrapped up an entire story in the miniseries, leaving no narrative threads undone. The creators also didn’t have staff writers, so they were forced to write the entire season on their own, which proved to be a daunting task. Compared to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which had an average of 20 episodes per season and a staff of talented writers, “The Legend of Korra” was off to a rough start.
Initial interest in the series was high, premiering to an audience of 4.5 million viewers, but numbers dwindled as the show continued airing. At the start of its second season, the show lost nearly 2 million viewers, and this is where one can see Nickelodeon’s poor handling at work. The network didn’t help the show’s declining views with its weak promotion for the newest season, leading to even fewer viewers tuning in. This was only made worse by Season 2’s drop in animation quality and Nickelodeon constantly shifting the show’s time slot — first at 7 p.m. on Friday nights, then later to 8 p.m. and then 8:30 p.m. This made it difficult for even the most dedicated fans to know when “The Legend of Korra” would air.
Though Nickelodeon renewed “The Legend of Korra” for additional seasons, the show was always on the brink of cancelation and the children’s channel continued to mistreat it. Before the third season of the show aired on television, unreleased episodes were leaked online, causing confusion among fans. This prompted Nickelodeon to prematurely air the season with little to no promotion and viewership took another hit. Viewers found this frustrating since Season 3 of the show is regarded by many to be the best. Halfway through the season, fans were worried the show had met an abrupt, unexpected end when Nickelodeon suddenly pulled the series off the air. The network did not release a statement, remaining completely silent as Mike and Bryan addressed the issue on social media, reassuring fans that the series would be released online rather than on television.
Though the creators did their best to put fans at ease, the fandom grew frustrated with Nickelodeon’s treatment of “The Legend of Korra” and began to voice their grievances online. It was becoming obvious the network didn’t care for the series and was actively working against its success. “Wow, Nick just hates this show, don’t they?” a disgruntled fan wrote online, “It gets leaked, then they release the first episode with about 5 days warning and ZERO publicity…” Another fan complained, “Nick shot themselves in the foot by not promoting [The Legend of Korra] properly. They should also be airing the episodes more often all year round…Someone needs to get fired in their marketing dept when it comes to Korra.”
As if the show’s exile to the digital depths of Nickelodeon’s website wasn’t enough, Season 4 was hit with budget cuts, leading the creators to release yet another apology letter to fans about their frustration and disappointment. Forced to choose between letting employees go or a clip show, the creators chose the latter. The remaining episodes of “The Legend of Korra” were released online without issue and the series aired its final episode in December 2014. Despite its critical acclaim, mature themes and groundbreaking LGBTQ+ representation in children’s television, the damage had been done.
The series was reviled by many fans of the original series. Simply type “The Legend of Korra is bad” in YouTube’s search bar and you’ll find yourself bombarded with myriad video essays, from mild criticisms to harsh tirades. This is telling of the show’s overall reception. As unfounded as some complaints about the series are, the show definitely had its flaws but some of these issues stem directly from Nickelodeon’s treatment of the series. If the network had simply treated the show better, it might have lived up to its potential.
Despite the complicated relationship between Nickelodeon and “The Legend of Korra,” it seems that the creators and network have put the past behind them. In honor of Pride Month in 2020, Nickelodeon’s social media recognized Korra as an LGBTQ icon even though the network felt that same-sex partners were too “mature” for its kid audience when the show first aired and limited the show’s portrayal of Korra and her girlfriend, Asami. Nickelodeon celebrated Korra like they had her show’s best interest at heart, as if they didn’t make multiple assassination attempts on the show’s success. Regardless, Nick’s support of new animated films in the Avatarverse is a sign they finally recognize the franchise’s potential. “The Legend of Korra” was ambitious yet promising and it’s miraculous the show was even made. Given the network’s unfair treatment of the series and its controversial legacy, it’s no doubt the series deserved far better than it received.